Lectionary Commentaries for February 1, 2015
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Commentary on Mark 1:21-28
Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker
“How can you tell a true prophet from a false prophet?”
Spending my sabbatical year teaching at the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I encountered questions that I’ve never encountered in an American seminary classroom. Prophets? In my experience, prophets are people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel — strange, charismatic figures whose words continue to inspire and convict us, but who are safely confined to the biblical era. We might speak of exceptional people like Martin Luther King, Jr. as prophets, but such people are few and far between.
But for my Ethiopian students, the question was a real and urgent one. There are many people who claim to be prophets in the Ethiopian churches, and those around them need to know whether they are trustworthy or not.
One student, a middle-aged, wise pastor, said that when he was young, a self-proclaimed prophet told him and a certain young woman that God wanted them to marry one another and that if they didn’t, they would die. “We looked at each other,” he went on, “and we said, ‘No, we’re not going to get married.’ We married other people and both of us are still alive.” The whole class laughed.
How can you tell a true prophet from a false prophet? The question was just as urgent for the audience that our text from Deuteronomy addresses. After Moses — the pre-eminent prophet — dies, how will the people know the will of God? They cannot consult sooth-sayers and mediums like the nations around them do, as the passage before this one makes abundantly clear (Deuteronomy18:9-14). So how will they know who speaks for God?
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (Deuteronomy 18:15). God promises not to abandon the people to their own devices. The passage was probably originally a validation of the line of prophets that arose in Israel over the centuries (Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Huldah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.). From time to time, God would call a prophet to speak God’s word to the people. This passage, however, came to be understood over the centuries as an eschatological promise. The promised prophet (singular) was understood to be a person that would come during the messianic age.
This eschatological expectation is apparent in a confrontation between John the Baptist and the religious authorities. When John announces the kingdom of God, the priests and Levites ask him, “Who are you?” and he says, “’I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No’ … They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’” (John 1:20-21, 25). When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, they are not so much representations of the Law and the Prophets as they are the two figures that were expected to appear at the end of the ages, to herald the Messiah.
This eschatological expectation does not seem to be at the heart of the matter, however, in the Deuteronomy passage. The issue is not the end of the ages, but the present time, when in the muck and mire of everyday life, the people need to know who speaks for God.
Perhaps the question is as relevant for us as it was for those ancient Israelites and for my present-day Ethiopian students. Who speaks for God? There are lots of people who claim to speak for God today: prosperity preachers, self-help gurus, radio and TV preachers, religious bloggers galore, and even you, working preacher, who gets up Sunday after Sunday to proclaim God’s Word in your particular time and place.
Who speaks for God? How do you distinguish between a true prophet and a false prophet? Deuteronomy gives us some guidance. Anyone who speaks in the name of other gods is obviously a false prophet (18:20). But false prophets are usually more subtle than that. Anyone who speaks a prophecy that doesn’t come true is a false prophet (18:22). The problem, of course, is that often we need to make a decision in the moment and can’t wait to see what becomes of the prophet’s (or preacher’s) word.
Still, if we take the larger witness of the Old Testament prophets seriously, there are some other things we can say (and this is what I said to my Ethiopian students).
- The true prophet does not seek to be a prophet. From Moses’ long protest against God’s call in Exodus 3 to Jeremiah’s objection that he is “only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6), no prophet in the Bible wants to be a prophet. It is something, instead, that they do because they cannot avoid God’s call. When Jeremiah tries to keep silent, he cannot (Jeremiah 20). Even when Elijah runs away, he cannot escape God’s presence (1 Kings 19).
- The true prophet seeks neither self-promotion nor riches. Naaman the Syrian is healed of leprosy by Elisha’s word in 2 Kings 5, but Elisha will not accept any payment or gift. Many of the prophets put aside pride and dignity in order to engage in bizarre sign-acts, walking naked in the streets of Jerusalem (Isaiah 20) or lying prone on the ground for weeks on end (Ezekiel 4).
- The true prophet speaks God’s word, not his or her own (Deuteronomy 18:18). Over and over again, the prophets declare, “Thus says the LORD.” And they most often speak words that are uncomfortable, to say the least — words of judgment for their own people. True, they also speak words of comfort and hope, but almost always on the other side of judgment. The prophets are not advocates of the power of positive thinking. Their hope rests on God alone, not on their own power or worth.1
- The true prophet bears a “family resemblance” to what has come before. The prophets speak new words into new situations. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19). The Holy Spirit moves in new and unexpected ways. Nevertheless, if the prophet’s words contradict what we already know of God from Scripture, then they (and the prophet) should be suspect.
- The true prophet (and the false prophet) is known by his or her “fruit.” Jesus warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). Does the prophet (or preacher) lead others to be disciples of Jesus or of themselves? Does his or her preaching lead to repentance and transformation or to complacency and self-absorption?
Who speaks for God? The answer requires discernment and prayer. Scripture gives us some guidelines, and there are more than what I have listed here. In all that we do, of course, as we hear and study God’s Word, and as we are given the great privilege and the responsibility to proclaim it ourselves, we must do so with a healthy dose of humility, pointing always to Jesus, our great prophet, priest, and king.
1 This is perhaps too easy a target for condemnation, but in a particularly bizarre episode, Joel Osteen, appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s “Lifeclass,” leads the audience in “I am” statements — having nothing to do with Christ but only with themselves: “I am strong! I am confident! I am secure! I am talented! I am blessed! I am victorious!” One can only imagine how furiously Jeremiah or John the Baptist would respond. See the video at http://www.oprah.com/oprahs-lifeclass/Positive-Declarations-from-Pastor-Joel-Osteen-Video.
Commentary on Psalm 111
If I were tasked with introducing God as our “visiting” lecturer, I would use this Psalm.
Psalm 111 summarizes God’s “position,” accomplishments and attributes. It even identifies a personal connection between the one offering the introduction and the one being introduced, which motivates a connection between God and those to whom God is being introduced.
Plain and simple, as the Psalmist attests, this God is the true Lord of all.
God’s curriculum vitae (CV) according to Psalm 111, includes a wide variety of accomplishments ranging from establishing and keeping covenants (vs. 9) to providing food (vs. 5). God has even sent redemption to his people (vs. 9).
God shows people the power of his works (vs. 6), which have been described as great (vs. 2), full of honor and majesty (vs. 3), faithful and just (vs. 7). These works have been studied (vs. 2) and have gained God renown (vs. 4).
The precepts of this accomplished one are trustworthy and established (vs. 7).
Not only are God’s accomplishments impressive, but anyone who knows God has met one who is gracious and merciful (vs. 4), and ever mindful of his covenant (vs. 5). Indeed, his name is holy and awesome (vs. 9). This combination of accomplishments and attributes are rare in the divine. In fact, the combination can be found nowhere else but in our God, the Lord.
Usually those with such a combination of attributes and accomplishments remain at arm’s length from the masses. But not God; God connects with God’s people and encourages a profound intimacy with those who perform his precepts with faithfulness and uprightness (vs. 8). Those who practice fear of the Lord will have a good understanding; they will be wise (vs. 10).
The Psalmist has felt and attested to this intimacy by giving thanks to the Lord with his “whole heart” (vs. 1). He puts his whole self on the line in the midst of the congregation for this one.
Finally, thankfully, it looks like this one will be sticking around. He’s not just stopping by for a temporary visit on his worldwide tour in order to broaden his fame. He’s on a worldwide tour, yes, but his righteousness endures forever (vs. 3), his precepts are established forever (vs. 7), he has commanded his covenant forever (vs. 9), and his praise endures forever (vs. 10).
Please join me in fearing and praising this one, who is, after all, not simply a “visiting” lecturer, but our ever-present teacher.
One can see how no one else could receive such an introduction. The Psalmist introduces us to God and we preachers have an opportunity to introduce (or re-introduce) God to others. Such an introduction prompts hearers to lead lives that mirror God. The latter is confirmed by the complementarity of Psalm 111 and Psalm 112. The two Psalms belong together. They are similar in organization; both are acrostic poems, which contain twenty-two lines with each line beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Even more, they utilize similar words and phrases: both refer to the upright (111:1 and 112:2, 4), agents who are gracious and merciful (111:4 and 112:4), providers (111:5 and 112:9), and doers of justice (111:7 and 112:5). Both focus heavily on the future (in 111:8 the works are established forever and ever, and in 112:8 hearts are steady and in the end will triumph).
The amazing thing about this similar use of language is that one Psalm (111) is focused on the deeds of the Lord, as noted above, and the other (112) is focused on the deeds of those who fear the Lord. Could it be that those who fear the Lord are expected to act like the Lord? Even more, could it be that those who find great delight in his commands are capable of mirroring the deeds of the Lord? The complementarity of these two Psalms suggests so. Before our works righteousness detectors sound, note that Psalm 111 comes first; it is only because our Lord is already gracious and merciful and just that we are at all capable of being gracious and merciful and just.
For those preachers who will be focusing on this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 1), Psalm 111 offers a possible way to highlight Jesus’ accomplishments and attributes. Add to God’s “CV” Jesus’ accomplishments and attributes expressed in Mark 1; he teaches as one with authority, and rebukes, even tames, unclean spirits. Feel free to go the next step of introducing God to the hearers by identifying God’s words and work spoken and performed in the midst of your setting. Doing so is testifying to this accomplished one just as the psalmist does, thereby prompting the praise of all.
Wouldn’t it be something then if God were able to introduce us as those who have given our whole selves to giving thanks to God (vs. 1); those who have performed God’s precepts with faithfulness and uprightness (vs. 8); and those who have a good understanding/wisdom because we have practiced fear of the Lord (10)!
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
This is one of my favorite passages in Paul’s letters.
It gives us access to a concrete situation in Paul’s communities, and gives us some sense of how Paul thought and what he decided to put first in his dealings with his communities. It is even more accessible to us because in a sense the problem that Paul discusses here is an issue that is somewhat irrelevant for at least western Christianity, since food sacrificed to idols does not play an important role in our daily life. Thus, one can be dispassionate about the actual difficulty that Paul is trying to solve, and one can instead focus on Paul’s argumentation.
For the community in Corinth, the problem is as follows: once the animals were sacrificed during pagan rituals, the extra meat was sold in markets. As a Christ believer living in Corinth could one buy and eat this meat? Corinth was known in the first century as the quintessential pagan town, and it would have been difficult for Christ believers in Corinth to live in a manner completely separate from the world around them. When Paul deals with the community, he always tries to establish a behavior that takes into account both the fact that the Christ believers live inside the world, but are also clearly separate from it.
Paul’s divine world
The passage gives us a glimpse in the manner in which Paul understood the world, and in particular the space between God and human beings. One sees first, from 1 Corinthians 8:4-5, that Paul is aware that in the world surrounding him there are plenty of gods and lords. In this case, he is probably thinking of the pagan gods, and heroes, although Judaism also had its categories of beings between God and human beings (angels, demons, powers). In 1 Corinthians 10:20-21, Paul actually explicitly identifies these gods and heroes with demons. Paul does not give credence to these gods, since for him (and for other Jews with him) there is only God.
Yet, he recognizes that these gods are here, even though they play no role for him. It seems that for some of the Corinthians at least, knowing that these gods and heroes are not the true one God was sufficient to allow them to eat sacrificed meat without feeling guilty about it. One can tell that this is also in fact Paul’s position: since these gods are not the one true God, eating meat that had been dedicated to these gods is indifferent. It does no prejudice to the God of Israel.
Knowledge is not enough
However, Paul does not establish this knowledge as something that is the ultimate criterion to decide how to behave. Paul never conceives of the Christ believer as an independent individual who would take decisions that involve him or herself only. Quite the contrary in fact. For Paul, the Christ believers are first and foremost involved in a community. They are enmeshed in a network of relationships that connect them to other Christ believers. This interconnectedness is precisely the ultimate criterion for Paul. How one’s behavior will influence the behavior of others is paramount.
Hence, even if one knows that it is in fact not a problem to eat meat sacrificed to idols, one should not place one’s correct knowledge above one’s implication in the community. The good of the community comes before anything else.
Love is the ultimate criterion
Thus, love for the community, what is surmised under the word agape in Greek, is what should guide one’s actions. The Christ believers’ freedom is limited first of all because the Christ believers belong to Christ and are thus enslaved to Christ, but also because they are part of a community. In this community, it is the opinion of the ones less certain in their faith that need to orient everyone’s decisions. This is indeed how love should be understood in the Christ believers’ communities. Love in this context is of course not a romantic feeling, but it is also not some sweet, affectionate type of feeling. Love when it comes to the community is an active feeling that must be translated into acts and actions rather than in good feelings towards the others. For Paul, love in the community does not necessarily mean that you have to like the other people in the community, or that you have to agree with what they decide or how they understand the world. Rather you have to modify your own behavior in order to protect them and to make sure that they are not offended by your own behavior.
It is thus a value that orients the freedom of the Christ believers and means that they have to refrain from certain behaviors in order to adapt to the needs and beliefs of other members of the community. Love thus understood underlies the principle that Paul repeats in 1 Corinthians 10:23 and that he has already mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:12: all things are permitted, but not all things are beneficial. The criterion to determine what is beneficial is how something will affect the other members of the community. Being right, having the correct knowledge is clearly insufficient to decide which behavior ultimately should be practiced. Knowing is one thing, but choosing the behavior that will not offend the other members of the community is another. And for that only love, understood as deep concern for the other members of the community, can be used.
Possessed by the Holy Spirit, fresh from successfully confronting Satan in the wilderness, preaching the reign of God, and now in the company of at least four followers, it’s time for Jesus’ public ministry to gather momentum.
It’s time for a fight scene.1
The scene in a Capernaum synagogue — a setting of prayer, teaching, worship, and community gathering — centers around questions of Jesus’ authority. Why does he do what he does? For whom does he speak and act? Who has authorized his ministry?
The answers to those questions emerge through fights — contests and controversies, really — beginning here and extending into Mark 3. They will recur later in Mark, too. Mark wants us to know, here at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry — that Jesus’ authority will be a contested authority. Jesus’ presence, words, and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over people’s lives. These other authorities have something to lose.
The authorized exorcist
The man with the unclean spirit finds Jesus, initiating the exchange. His opening question, asked by the spirit that possesses him, is idiomatic and therefore difficult to translate. It conveys a sense of “Why are you picking this fight?” or “Couldn’t you have just left things as they were between us?” (see similar constructions in the LXX versions of Judges 11:12; 1 Kings 17:18; 2 Kings 3:13). Jesus, by his sheer presence in this synagogue, has upset the order. He has crossed an established boundary.
The contest does not last long, for this is not the fairest of fights in terms of the strength of the combatants. We can’t be sure whether the spirit’s next question (“Have you come to destroy us [unclean spirits]?”) is a fearful acknowledgement that his doom is sealed or an arrogant but miscalculated boast. In any case, the spirit is soon gone, expelled from the man with a few words from Jesus. No prayers. No formulas. No props. Just commands.
Mark gives no information about what happens to the spirit, which appears to become disembodied, not destroyed. As Loren Stuckenbruck notes, the New Testament is somewhat unique among ancient Jewish literature in its attention to demonic possession (as opposed to demonic attacks). When Jesus strips the spirits of the ability to inhabit their human hosts, perhaps the gospels’ authors claim that Jesus denies the unclean spirits’ capability to have a settled place or entrenched influence in the world.2 Losing opportunities to win over people’s bodies and minds, they lose the authority they were thought to have. This exorcism, then, does not eliminate evil and oppression; it denies those kinds of forces the authority or power to hold ultimate sway over people’s lives.3
The authorized teacher
The crowd’s amazement about the exorcism resonates with its reaction to Jesus’ teaching at the beginning of this passage. That Jesus was permitted to teach in a synagogue is not remarkable in itself; what captures attention is the manner of his teaching.
Mark says Jesus teaches “as one having authority” and takes a dig at the credentialed Jewish legal experts, the scribes, in the process. This doesn’t instigate a full-fledged fight, but it issues a challenge. Apparently Jesus’ teaching style is more declarative than deliberative. That is, he interprets the law and speaks on behalf of God without engaging in much dialogue about traditions, as the scribes were known to do. This seems in line with other places in Mark where Jesus speaks about newness (e.g., 2:21-22) and where he claims the authority to make assertions about the way things are (e.g., 2:28; 10:5).
The teaching and the exorcism are connected, then, since both result in amazement and acclamations about Jesus’ authority. Teaching and exorcism both have immediate effects, and both issue claims about who Jesus is. Inquiries into Jesus’ authority are inquiries into his identity. Mark is just getting warmed up, for these kinds of questions will resurface (e.g., 2:5-12; 3:15, 19b-22; 4:41; 6:2-3, 7; 8:11). Eventually, the question of Jesus’ authority — is he really sent by God? — will figure into his death, beginning with the question put to him in 11:28 and continuing through his sham trial before the high priest and then Pilate. Who is this teaching exorcist? He will finally be identified as king of the Jews.
Authority and the reign of God
Preachers who plan to spend much time in Mark’s Gospel during the current church year should consider using this Sunday to underscore the importance of the authority question. For Mark, the question does not lead to answers of theological precision. This gospel doesn’t devote energy toward establishing a clear Christology, an understanding of Jesus’ nature(s). Instead, Mark depicts Jesus as the one uniquely authorized, commissioned, or empowered to declare and institute the reign of God. Through Jesus, then, we glimpse characteristics of this reign. It is intrusive, breaking old boundaries that benefited another kind of rule. It is about liberating people from the powers that afflict them and keep all creation — including human bodies and human societies — from flourishing. It is about articulating God’s intentions for the world, defying or reconfiguring some traditions to do so, if need be.
Most preachers know how difficult exorcism and healing stories can be. What do these texts promise us today? What do these stories mean for those who don’t share the worldviews of the gospels, where it comes to understanding what makes human existence perilous, where illnesses come from, and what it means to acknowledge that some powerful forces — whether we consider these forces essentially spiritual, sociological, anthropological, habitual, political, biological, climatological, or not even capable of being so neatly divided into such categories — appear to remain stubbornly beyond our ability to control? At minimum, this passage provokes us to stop assuming that “the way things are” must always equal “the way things have to be.” The reign of God promises more, whether the “more” can be realized now or in a far-off future.
Churches that observe Epiphany devote the season to celebrating and considering the means by which Christ becomes visible and known to the world. Where are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and deeds’ potential to upend our assumptions about what’s possible? Where can we see souls set free from destructive tendencies and powers that we thought were beyond anyone’s control? Preachers who bring these observations to the forefront of their sermons remind congregations that Epiphany is not just about longing for and acknowledging past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness and the gospel’s power; it’s also about discovering what deserves our amazement in our current and longed-for experiences.
1 On the action that precedes this passage, see my commentary for the First Sunday of Lent, on Mark 1:9-15.
2 Loren T. Stuckenbruck, “Satan and Demons,” in Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (ed. Chris Keith and Larry W. Hurtado; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 173-97.
3 By contrast, the unclean spirits who enter the swine in Mark 5:1-20 appear to be destroyed in the water or confined to a place of chaos. Mark does not indicate whether this happens because of their stupidity, their reduced ability to control hosts, or Jesus’ power over pigs’ bodies.